Why Can’t Africa Get More Vaccines?
Blinken pledges “Africa is the future,” but vaccine apartheid persists.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Sudan reinstates its ousted prime minister, data leak exposes looting of public funds by Kabila family in Congo, and, after more than a century, Ethiopia’s stolen artifacts return home from Britain.
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Two Years Into Pandemic, Africans Still Lack Vaccines
Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Africa is still asking for vaccines. Approximately 7 percent of Africans are fully vaccinated, compared with about 60 percent of the U.S. population and upwards of 75 percent in some wealthy European and Asian nations.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal marked a long-overdue change to U.S. policy on Africa after what many Africans saw as an era of indifference and contempt. But many African leaders remain angry over the lack of vaccine access.
Ninety-six percent of Moderna’s vaccines, which benefited from U.S. taxpayer-funded technology, have gone to wealthier countries, according to the research group Airfinity. A Nov. 18 report found that among countries that participated in clinical trials, poorer countries received fewer doses than richer ones of the vaccines they helped test. Richer nations also continue to stockpile vaccines.
During a visit to the Institut Pasteur, a biomedical medical research center in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, Blinken talked about U.S. commitments to bolster vaccine manufacturing for a range of diseases. “We have to come together to close that gap. It’s the fair and just thing to do,” Blinken said at the center on Saturday.
That is slowly happening. In October, facing pressure from the Biden administration, Moderna agreed to sell 110 million doses to African Union member nations, enough to reach less than 10 percent of the continent’s population of 1.3 billion.
African diplomats have embraced a new U.S. policy on trade and investment, particularly on science and innovation. The U.S. government’s International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) has committed $3.3 million toward Institut Pasteur’s manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines by 2022. Africans wonder why it has taken so long. After all, a bid to suspend intellectual property protections on vaccine technology, proposed by South Africa and India, has hit a dead end.
Many Africans have grown disillusioned with U.S. policy that has historically put Africa at the bottom of the priority list. America’s cultural soft power is wide-ranging in Africa, but China has outpaced the United States when it comes to economic initiatives. A Chinese partnership with Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria is already manufacturing China’s COVID-19 vaccines on the continent.
The DFC is now looking to expand African vaccine production. “We’re really thinking about investments that are not just for the next few years but the long term,” Nafisa Jiwani, managing director for health initiatives at the DFC, told me in August. “We’re paying attention to what the African Union is saying in terms of the strategic mission for vaccine manufacturing hubs and how you can leverage assets based from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa so that a country can quickly manufacture for their own needs and then be able to export out.”
Top U.S. officials are also sounding the right notes. “Too many times, the countries of Africa have been treated as junior partners,” Blinken said on Friday in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. He vowed the United States will now treat Africa as the “major geopolitical player” it has become. But there is still a perception on the continent that U.S. policy could continue to be all talk and little action.
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, Nov. 24: The United Nations Security Council meets for a briefing on the U.N. mission in Libya.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits Morocco.
The U.N. Economic Commission for Africa hosts a virtual meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee of Senior Officials and Experts for North Africa.
Monday, Nov. 29 to Tuesday, Nov. 30: African leaders gather for the China-Africa Cooperation summit in Dakar, Senegal.
What We’re Watching
Business as usual? Blinken’s Nigeria visit came after a controversial U.S. arms deal and a leaked judicial panel report showing that Nigerian soldiers killed unarmed #EndSARS protesters in October 2020. For over a year, Nigerian officials denied the killings as “fake news.”
According to the report, the army’s shooting of “defenceless protesters without provocation or justification” could be “described as a massacre.” Live bullets were fired “with the deliberate intention to assault, maim and kill,” it revealed.
The panel found that after the army retreated, police officers continued the assault and “tried to cover up their actions” by cleaning bloodstains and removing bullets and bodies. The panel’s report was released to the Lagos State government on Nov. 15 and leaked later that evening.
U.S. military assistance hasn’t stopped, however. Nigeria received six A-29 Super Tucano fighter planes in July. It is part of a sale of 12 aircrafts, bombs, and rockets, as well as a servicing agreement, by the U.S. government, even though Nigerian aircraft missions fighting Boko Haram have on several occasions mistakenly bombed civilians with impunity—including a refugee camp, killing hundreds. The United States will work to ensure flying missions are “in accordance with the law of armed conflict” and that “mistakes are bought to light immediately,” Blinken told Channels TV.
And while his Friday speech emphasized that “technology is being used to silence dissent and prosecute citizens—and democracies must answer the call to fight back against disinformation, stand up for internet freedom,” it was widely regarded as tone-deaf by Nigerians, given that Twitter is currently banned in the country and citizens are decrying worsening corruption.
Blinken also announced $2.1 billion in development assistance to Nigeria. But as Nigerian journalist Socrates Mbamalu wrote in Foreign Policy, Washington’s “focus is stability, not human rights,” and “Africa’s youth are paying attention to who supports them—and who doesn’t.”
Sudan reinstates civilian PM. Sudan’s military reached an agreement on Sunday to reinstate civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok almost a month after an Oct. 25 coup put him under house arrest. During a state broadcast on Sunday, Hamdok said the deal allows him to form a new technocratic transitional government to hold elections by July 2023—the original timeline. Yet security forces continued to crack down on protesters demanding a full civilian-led government. A 16-year-old protester was shot dead, according to Sudan’s central doctors’ committee; at least 39 protesters have been killed since late October.
Crackdown in Uganda. Ugandan police shot and killed the Muslim cleric Muhammad Abbas Kirevu, who was accused of recruiting for the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an armed group that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2019. A total of five suspects were killed and 21 arrested by security forces on Thursday following bombings in the capital, Kampala, last Tuesday.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni accused another cleric on the run, Suleiman Nsubuga, of training terrorists. Meanwhile, the Islamic State claimed responsibility, naming the bombers via its news agency Amaq. In March, the United States linked the ADF to the Islamic State, but some experts dispute its strong Islamic ties, arguing that the linkage obscures local grievances.
The group emerged in the 1990s to oppose Museveni’s government. In the mid-2000s, Ugandan military assaults forced the ADF into the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where its various factions regrouped and killed thousands of people in 2020 alone.
Anti-French blockade in Burkina Faso. Three protesters were injured by French troops on Saturday during the third day of a human barricade to stop a French military convoy in Burkina Faso en route to Niger. French soldiers fired warning shots to disperse the crowd but hit unarmed protesters. France has no military bases in the country, but it has stationed troops in neighboring Mali since 2013 under Operation Barkhane, a counterterrorism campaign to repel Islamist insurgents.
The intervention initially beat back armed groups, but jihadis then spread across Mali and crossed borders into Burkina Faso and Niger—reorganizing elsewhere. Some Burkinabe citizens believe that the French stoke rather than quash violence in the region. Armed groups have been able to recruit locals using grievances over civilian deaths by French and Malian troops.
This Week in Culture
Beauty pageant uproar. Lalela Mswane, the reigning Miss South Africa, is keeping her eye quite firmly on the Miss Universe crown despite a political and social media backlash. The South African government has withdrawn its support for Mswane to compete in the Miss Universe pageant, to be held next month in Israel.
Anti-Israel activists staged a protest outside Miss South Africa headquarters in Johannesburg on Friday and called for Mswane to boycott the competition. Nathi Mthethwa, the minister of sports, arts, and culture, said discussions to persuade Mswane and pageant organizers not to take part had turned “unpleasant.” In a statement, Mthethwa made a point of saying that “atrocities committed by Israel against Palestinians are well documented.”
After two decades of close political and military ties during the late apartheid era, post-apartheid South Africa’s foreign policy on Israel has been frosty; it downgraded its Tel Aviv embassy in 2019 and recalled its ambassador. Former President Nelson Mandela’s grandson Inkosi Zwelivelile Mandla Mandela has called for a “global boycott” of the Miss Universe event—but South Africa’s candidate is standing firm and intends to compete.
Looted artifacts returned. After more than 150 years, 13 stolen Ethiopian treasures returned home to Addis Ababa on Saturday. The artifacts were looted by British forces in 1868 after the Battle of Magdala. (Ethiopia considers the sacking of Magdala a “great injustice” that has long been a thorn in its relations with Britain.)
Some of the objects had been put up for auction in Britain in June by a descendant of a British soldier who fought in the war. A U.K.-based nonprofit, the Scheherazade Foundation, purchased the objects through the auction with the goal of returning them; others were acquired from private dealers. Private institutions are taking the lead in returning stolen artifacts due to the U.K. government and British state-owned museums’ stubborn stance opposing restitution of objects stolen during the colonial era, insisting instead on loaning the objects back to the countries they were taken from.
Chart of the Week
Citizens in most African countries distrust the police, in contrast to the United States, where the legislature is the most distrusted institution.
What We’re Reading
Kabila family looting. A huge leak of financial documents from Africa—obtained by the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa, an organization of lawyers and investigative journalists—shows how the private banking firm BGFIBank allegedly facilitated the transfer of at least $138 million of public funds to former Democratic Republic of the Congo President Joseph Kabila’s family and friends.
The investigation, dubbed “Congo Hold-Up,” has revealed what many Congolese long suspected about public money used to enrich Kabila’s inner circle.
Kabila took office in 2001 and ruled Congo until 2019, and he frequently declared his commitment to fighting corruption. Yet employees of the bank allegedly created a system of dubious invoices and entities owned by Kabila’s relatives.
BGFIBank is headquartered in Libreville, Gabon, but has subsidiaries across Central Africa, including in Congo. It was run by the ex-president’s brother from 2012 until 2018, while Kabila’s sister held 40 percent of the bank’s shares. The records “form a perfect handbook of how a kleptocracy works,” Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa director Henri Thulliez told Bloomberg.
Refugee deaths in Malawi. In October 2019, Rwandan refugee Augustin Barabeshya was strangled to death while sleeping inside his house in Malawi’s Dzaleka refugee camp, home to over 40,000 refugees who fled wars in Burundi, Rwanda, and Congo.
Members of the Rwandan community say they are being targeted and insist that the Malawian government investigate allegations that Rwandan intelligence services are responsible for a spate of deaths, according to the Platform for Investigative Journalism Malawi.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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